One in four UK workers – more than nine million people – are expected to be furloughed during the coronavirus crisis as businesses struggle to survive. The cost to the Treasury is estimated to be between £30 to £40 billion. Two-thirds of British businesses have already used the government’s scheme since it was announced last month, and one in three companies have put at least 75 per cent of their workforce on furlough, according to a survey published by the British Chamber of Commerce.
With so many British employees now facing furlough, it can be challenging for businesses to know how to effectively and diplomatically follow the process, and to ensure they keep the lines of communication open and relevant. With strict rules around what furloughed employees are (and aren’t) allowed to do, having the confidence to get this right as an employer, and keeping in touch with staff appropriately, begins with knowledge. To provide guidance, we spoke to legal firm Marriott Harrison’s Employment Partner, Rima Mehay.
According to Rima, “the word ‘furlough’ isn’t new, but it’s not a term that’s previously been recognised in English law, like ‘redundancy’ or ‘lay off’ has been”. Rima says, “currently there is only guidance produced by the Government on the furlough process, and no legislation in place, although this is expected shortly. Everybody is currently working on a promise and guidance from the Government as to how the scheme will operate”.
With no robust laws in place, firms will want to carry out the furlough process as compassionately as possible, and this starts with open communication. “Firstly, an employee has to be designated as on furlough leave,” Rima explains. “This should involve a communication and consultation period, where employees should be asked to agree to a variation to their contract of employment placing them on furlough leave, with the other options (in some cases) likely being redundancy”.
Keeping worried employees engaged during a furlough period is equally important, but there are challenges. “The rules of the scheme seem to be that the furlough period is a minimum of three weeks – and there is absolutely no work allowed to be done for the employer during that time. If their contract allows it, employees can get a job elsewhere during that time period, essentially claiming the 80% salary from the Government, and additional finances from a secondary employer too. Likewise, volunteering and training is also allowed – with the crucial sticking point being that it must not generate any income whatsoever for the current employer”.
So, how can you best use communication to navigate the furlough process together with your employees?
Before anything else, ensure that you observe the consultation period; this is your chance to speak to your employees about furlough, and let them ask questions. Before the furlough begins, clearly explain to your employees that they are allowed to undertake work with other employers during this period, if their contract allows.
Recognise the challenges many individuals and families are facing, from home schooling to economic uncertainty, and concern around future job security and reflect these issues in your communications. No matter how testing the times are within your organisation, it’s those companies who act purposefully and communicate honestly and openly who will be remembered positively once things eventually get back to normal. So, make the time to respond to both individual queries as well as sending out general communication updates.
Keep employees engaged with the business through a newsletter or email round-up or, if you can, through mobile-ready video content. It can be as simple as a recording on your phone, or something more sophisticated if you have the scale and means. Use it to keep employees up-to-date with company news, or business updates from your senior leadership team – just make sure these aren’t related to any individual workloads or client needs. Try to make this piece of core comms a regular thing, and at the same time every week so employees come to expect it and feel included.
Share tips and advice on wellbeing resources, demonstrating you understand the challenges your employees are facing whilst at home. To keep it authentic, make these lifestyle communications ones that relate to your organisation somehow – maybe a yoga instructor who once did an in- house team session at your workplace. Or nutrition and recipe advice from the caterer who provides event food for your business. There’s so much online now generally, it’s important your communications feel relevant and targeted.
If you’ve been able to contribute something purposeful as an organisation during this period that’s aligned with your core business activities and positively supports the community, let your employees on furlough know. And see if there’s a way they can get involved with volunteering within the furlough rules, even though they aren’t working for you right now.
We may be at home, but we all appreciate some personalised, relevant contact and to be kept up to date. This is about getting the balance right with your communications, keeping it professional at all times, but also ensuring your values and the human face behind the business also comes to the fore.
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